Rugby World Cup 2019: Sam Cane looks to turn screw on England’s ‘Kamikaze Kids’ in battle of flankers
The All Black overcame a broken neck to inherit Richie McCaw’s cherished No 7 shirt
Like levels in a computer game, World Cups increase their difficulty in small but devastating increments. Just when you’ve downed one bad guy, an even tougher one appears out of the backcloth. For Tom Curry and Sam Underhill, their reward for seeing off Australia’s back-row partnership of Michael Hooper and David Pocock on Saturday is arguably an even stiffer assignment: a showdown with the All Black loose forward pairing of Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, and a battle that could well determine the course of this weekend’s World Cup semi-final.
Cane was in a generous mood as he faced the media in Tokyo on Monday afternoon, paying a warm if measured tribute to the young pair who have lit up England’s tournament so far. Then again, when you’ve stepped into the shoes of perhaps the greatest All Black of all time and overcome a broken neck, you’re probably not daunted by a challenge.
To slip on the black No 7 jersey is to take possession of a cherished bloodline, going back through the great Richie McCaw and Josh Kronfeld to the likes of Michael Jones and Ian Kirkpatrick. And perhaps the greatest testament to Cane’s indispensability to this All Blacks unit is that at his best, such comparisons do not disgrace him. Yet one of the curiosities of his 66-cap career is that to date, not one of them has come against England. That will change this weekend.
And so along with Ardie Savea, Cane will have the job of stopping England’s “Kamikaze Kids”. Curry and Underhill may be just 21 and 23, but their performances at this tournament have displayed a maturity beyond their years, making 36 tackles between them against Australia. “Underhill and Curry have been pretty impressive,” Cane acknowledged. “Both have got a huge appetite for hard work, have very good skill-sets.” Throw in the tussle of the No 8s between Kieran Read and Billy Vunipola, and you have all the makings of a thrilling match-up.
The trend towards playing two opensides at No 6 and No 7 is one Eddie Jones’s side have deployed to good effect of late, offering greater fluidity in return for a little heft at the set piece. Back in August, Jones suggested that England might sacrifice Curry against the All Blacks in order to play an extra jumper in the lineout. Curry’s stellar form, however, surely makes him safe for now.
“It probably shows where the game has evolved slightly, where the three loose forward roles – and particularly the flankers – don’t differ too much,” said Cane. “It just depends, I suppose, on a coach, and what make-up he wants from his loose forwards too. Teams are so structured and probably the best chance to attack from unstructured [play] is turnover ball, so you might increase your chances ever so slightly.”
And when it comes to flexibility, few teams can touch this All Black back row. One of their greatest strengths is the way they can switch roles almost at will, deploying Cane’s brilliant scramble-defence and Savea’s superb ball running to sniff out opposition weaknesses wherever they appear. It is a unit designed, as captain and No 8 Kieran Read puts it, to “mix and mingle and go where we’re needed”.
It’s a relatively untried pairing, boasting just four outings together, and one that came about largely by accident, after Liam Squire was injured during the recent Rugby Championship. “Ardie has been working really hard on some of his set-piece work, which a No 6 is required to do a little bit more,” said Cane. “But bar the set piece, our roles are pretty interchangeable.”
Of course, Cane is lucky still to be around. It’s barely a year since he went in to clear a ruck against South Africa, got his head caught, and ended up breaking his neck, an injury that required a steel plate and four screws. Now, it’s Cane looking to turn the screws on the English, in a battle of the breakdown with a World Cup final at stake.